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Lately, primary school headteacher Ben Commins has been feeling the pressure. Like public sector professionals everywhere, his year has been spent navigating the chaos inflicted on the UK’s strained infrastructure by the coronavirus pandemic. What is worrying him most is number of children isolating at home, away from the direct attention of teaching staff, who have no way of completing online school work, no computer, no internet access, and are at risk of falling behind.
“I spoke to one family from our school during the last lockdown: they didn’t have a computer and we had managed to source a laptop for them through a donation and the father said, ‘Well, I’ve got five other children’. We serve council wards where there are a lot of multi-occupancy households, so there are six, seven people in a house and one computer at most.”
Commins runs Queens Park Primary School, situated at the very northern edge of the London borough of Westminster, just five miles from the Houses of Parliament, but serving council wards that are among the most deprived in the country, according to government data that tracks statistics on factors such as employment, health and income.
“What this has meant in reality is that it has widened the gap between those who have and those who don’t,” Commins says. “We’ve really seen that back at school this term. We can see those who have been accessing online learning since the first lockdown and those who haven’t. A minority who have been doing the learning – the majority haven’t.”
Queens Park Primary, which has not received additional laptops to give to children from the government, has more than a third of its pupils eligible for free school meals — something which is commonly used by the education sector and beyond as an indicator of poverty levels, as the benefit is only available to families on the lowest household incomes. The vast majority of these families, 78 per cent, speak English as a second language, making it harder for many parents to assist with homework too.
“In the entire borough of Westminster there are some 5,500 children eligible for free school meals, and therefore eligible for laptop allocations, but just 200 laptops had been delivered as yet,” Commins says.
The shortfall has been a country-wide issue. On October 23, school leaders received news from the Department for Education (DfE) that their expected allocations of additional laptops for disadvantaged pupils had been slashed by approximately 80 per cent. But just the day before, new legislation came into force that meant schools are now legally obligated to provide immediate access to remote learning to students who had been sent home to isolate — the idea being that there would be as little interruption to their learning as possible. Many schools have seen this as adding pressure to an already tough situation.
Steady access to learning, however, is something that children badly need after six months away from school this year — from March, through to the summer holiday break in July and August. Their education has already been hugely disrupted. As businesses closed and most pupils were sent home during the last nationwide lockdown, teachers had to radically change what their jobs entailed.
At Queens Park Primary school, Commins and his colleagues switched to managing food deliveries for the families they knew were struggling, using the drop-offs as a chance to deliver exercise books too; they began making regular phone calls to homes; and they expanded and managed the food bank already on the school site, the demand for which he says soared by 700 per cent as the economic fallout from coronavirus began to be felt. A GoFundMe page was launched to try and bring in funds for “everything” — mainly additional learning materials, food, and laptops mainly.
Technology issues presented themselves immediately. The school opted to record lessons, in hopes that they would be downloaded and watched, rather than expect students to try to tune in live, as that “excluded many pupils on shared devices”, who couldn’t watch live, Commins explains.
Across the country, the shift to using online resources for education is revealed by data on how devices are being used at home. According to the Oak National Academy, a government service providing online and downloadable lessons across the curriculum, 63.3 per cent of its downloads were to desktops, while 25.7 per cent were to mobile phones, and nine per cent to tablets, in the week beginning on October 19. According to Matt Hood, the principal of the Oak National Academy – an online education hub set up in the wake of the UK’s school closures earlier this year – since the start of the school term, five million of their online lessons have been downloaded. “As Covid-19 increase, we are expecting users to rise even more.”
But while it’s clear from those figures that some families have adapted, challenges around home-learning have not dissipated since schools reopened fully in September. Groups of students and staff still need to self-isolate at home if anyone in their classroom “bubble” has tested positive. In some areas, hundreds of schools have been affected — in Manchester, during the first six weeks of the school year, 577 schools have been forced to send at least some children home. Meanwhile, teachers, now running a full timetable back in the classroom, have less capacity to support those at home.
That’s why the cut in laptop allocations has prompted a row between headteachers and the government. “Our impression is that the government has never fully grasped the scale of the challenge both in terms of the numbers of devices that are needed and over ensuring that families have the connectivity they require,” says Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. “It is very frustrating that progress has been so slow on this front despite the fact that it has been discussed for many months.”
“We do recognise that officials have worked hard to source and distribute laptops,” Barton continues. “But the failing has been the lack of a clear understanding of what is needed, together with a target and timescale that would at least have given confidence that the government is on top of the issue.”
A spokesperson from the DfE says that the scale of need “is huge” and that there is global pressure on laptop supply chains as everyone has switched to doing everything virtually. “We sourced 220,000 [laptops] during the first lockdown, and this term there’s additional 350,000 in the pot,” the spokesperson says. “We’re doing things like fast tracking shipments through customs to try and meet this demand.”
How have so many schools seen their allocations driven downwards then? “The department has based its calculation on how many laptops it thinks we already have and how many students it thinks will be isolating,” explains Michael Tidd, head of East Preston Junior School, a primary school, in West Sussex. “But if schools are staying open — and we’ve been told there are virtually no circumstances that they will close — we [teaching staff] still need the ones we’ve got for teaching the curriculum, so it doesn’t add up,” Tidd says.
The DfE confirmed in its statement that the reasons for the change was an update to the allocation process “to more accurately align orders with the number of students schools typically have self-isolating, ensuring as many children as possible benefit from receiving a device this term”.
And another challenge has emerged since September: the randomness of groups staying at school and those having to go home makes resources harder to manage. With some pupils at school, and some at home, teachers are effectively needed to be in two places at once.
The lack of an appropriate home-learning set-up doesn’t only affect the very poorest families, Tidd says. A survey his school sent to parents found a majority responding to say that in the case of another full lockdown, they wouldn’t have the “space, the time, or the devices” for their child to learn remotely. For the time being, even though a second national lockdown looms, schools are set to remain open and the government has said it remains “important for children to attend”.
For schools, the Covid-19 crisis comes after a decade of ever tighter budgets. “If laptops are running slow, it’s often the last thing on the list of things that need to be paid for. Capital funding for schools has been decimated in the last ten years, so it’s not like there is a lot of equipment ready that’s good to use,” Tidd adds. He runs through the various solutions that have been attempted. There was talk of increasing the number of 4G hotspots, he says, while a pilot in collaboration with mobile phone companies to increase data allowances for disadvantaged families was conducted, but is now on hold.
As the country waits for a more cohesive solution, a group in Sheffield, prompted by a campaign by the local newspaper The Star, has devised a more formalised system of distributing second-hand devices. David Richards, the chief executive of Sheffield-based software company WANdisco, along with local councillor Abtisam Mohamed, launched Laptops for Kids, an impromptu campaign asking businesses for donations of devices, which will then be refurbished and distributed.
“This is a supply chain issue”, Richards says. “The civil service is trying to buy new devices, but is discovering there’s a long lead time for laptops to be manufactured, it’s doomed to fail, and it’s very expensive. There are, however, businesses like mine that will have thousands of laptops that can no longer be used for software development because models have been changed and so on. But those devices are perfectly usable for children who need to study.”
The refurbished laptops need to be safe for children and be GDPR-compliant for the businesses donating them, so the group has partnered with a company called Blancco, which erases all the data stored on the donated devices. They’ve even recruited college-age students to help volunteer with the refurb process, and are hoping to scale up. Richards is keen to extend the distribution to as many schools as possible. “I want this to be available for everybody, we want to scale it and roll it out nationally.”
In the meantime, as the months of the pandemic have dragged on, young people’s educational outcomes will likely depend on whether they attended schools that took action early to plug gaps, or schools that didn’t, or weren’t able to. “School teachers have done what they do best: they’ve got on with it. If we just sat and waited for the support that was coming to us, nothing would have happened,” Commins says. “We went out – for want of a better word – begging for laptops for our families.”
But knowing there will still be some pupils getting so behind, adrift from their peers, still keeps Commins awake at night. “It’s the first time in 20-odd years of working in education that I’ve lost sleep over it,” he says. “Because you’re not able to support the community you’ve always been able to support.”
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